Much Ado About Nothing? Political Contexts of the 15 Polish Painters Exhibition (MoMA, 1961)
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The essay concerns 15 Polish Painters, the now slightly forgotten, but once famous exhibition of Polish contemporary art that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961. Initially, the exhibition was conceived as an expression of a thaw in relations between the United States and Poland, and it was organised at the diplomatic level. Organisational works began during Vice President Richard Nixon’s visit to Warsaw in August of 1959. They were coordinated by Porter McCray (who was responsible for MoMA’s touring exhibition programme) and Peter Selz (an art historian of German origin and a curator cooperating with MoMA). The Polish side withdrew from the project because of the abstract character of the works that Selz had selected and his disregard for the “offi cial” artists of the People’s Republic of Poland. The project was completed with the collaboration of American private galleries which bought the paintings in Poland and then loaned them to MoMA to be exhibited. The essay presents the behind-the-scenes history of organising the exhibition and its political context. It discusses the artistic message of the exhibition and the key used in the selection of its works. Finally, it touches upon the issue of Polish art’s reputation in the United States and the question as to why the Americans, wishing to present modern art from behind the Iron Curtain, decided, of all the countries of the Soviet bloc, to focus on none other than Poland. The aim of the essay is to fi ll the gap in the historiography, since the 15 Polish Painters exhibition is usually referred to only briefl y and has never been the subject of a scholarly enquiry. The event seems worth recalling also because it adds a nuance to the still current – as was confi rmed by Catherine Dossin’s much-talked-of book, The Rise and Fall of American Art, 2015 – and yet schematic view that in the middle of the 20th century there existed only two art centres, New York and Paris, thus completely overlooking the distinct character of the countries of the Communist bloc.
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